New Canadian Media

By: Manaal Farooqi in Toronto, ON

One in every five Canadian women is born outside of the country. However, despite diverse ethnic backgrounds, many communities face discriminatory hurdles others may never witness in their lifetimes. This notion is only amplified in the case of Muslim immigrant women, who can experience challenges springing from multiple biases.

"Gendered Islamophobia" affects them in ways that are often left out of the wider conversation about the immigrant experience.

Whereas Islamophobia is defined as an irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against Islam or people who practice Islam, gendered Islamophobia dissects the issue a step further by diving into more pointed signs of inequity. Muslim women may be victims of both sexism and Islamophobia, disadvantaging them as they navigate through schooling, employment and other public spaces.

But, ultimately, it could play a huge role in their overall sense of safety.

Muslim women, specifically those identifiable through religious headgear or prayer routines practiced in public, can be more prone to being victims due to their "visible" status. This has led to cases of assault as well as blatant displays of anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Greater scrutiny

Aima, a Pakistani Canadian Muslim woman who dons the niqab, has dealt with discrimination in both public spaces and at university as well. She would find herself consistently ignored in classrooms when she attempted to answer or ask a question during lectures; and when she was able to speak in class she found her answers were met with greater scrutiny, even when they were correct.

Other comments directed towards her included unwelcome discussions on forced marriage along with the fact that she’s been repeatedly told that she “[enjoys] so much freedom” for someone wearing a niqab. She adds that “my body will be policed and my choices scrutinized” for the expression of her faith and identity within today’s socio-political climate.

And she’s not alone, Shazlin, a Malaysian immigrant who once wore religious headgear, states she has had similar experiences, in addition to street harassment.

“Even talking about it now, it makes me angry that I was vulnerable and that I was made a victim in that moment when I know I have a lot more agency,” she says. She recalls one particular incident when on a walk with other visibly Muslim women in Toronto, a man verbally assaulted them and attempted to flick cigarette butts at them.

Regardless of what Islamophobes think, the comments and questions Muslim women face on an everyday basis eventually begin to take their toll. T.G*, who is an Ethiopian Muslim immigrant, has found that people often assume she lacks intellect, agency and knowledge of pop culture because of her hijab.

“I’m a walking encyclopedia on all the ethnicities, cultural expressions, and nuanced faith practices of the Muslim world,” T.G adds sarcastically. “We are expected to be the compassionate caretaker, teacher, and empathetic listener to all manners of ignorance about our faith. The brunt of the burden of flag-bearing for Islam falls on us – especially hijab-wearing Muslim women.”

Seeking a lower profile

But Muslim women who are more visibly ambiguous are not immune to similar experiences. As in the case of Safia*, an Arab-Canadian Muslim who does not wear any religious headgear such as the niqab or hijab. Yet, she constantly faces questions related to terrorist groups such as ISIS at her workplace.

One of her former coworkers even emailed her after the Orlando shooting with footage he had found of an Imam who seemed to have made homophobic comments. He wrote to her demanding, “We want answers. What is your community doing about this?"

No action was taken and the comments continued, despite the fact that Safia had made complaints to her immediate supervisor multiple times. In the absence of authoritative intervention, she weathers the harassment through therapy.

Sara*, a young professional of North African descent who doesn’t wear a hijab, has attempted to keep her religious affiliation from co-workers, out of fear that repercussions could affect future opportunities and her overall comfort at work.

Sara explains that her former employer would bring her news articles about honour killings in an attempt to make a correlation with her faith that would justify its relevance. The controversial articles forced her into a defensive position on a complex subject that she did not even agree with. Now she avoids questions about religion or her ethnicity to discourage unwelcome conversations.

These experiences only begin to highlight some of the situations Muslim women are faced with on a daily basis. The full impact it may have on their everyday interactions, ability to navigate public spaces or even in their careers remains immeasurable.

*names have been changed to protect the identity of these women

Manaal Farooqi is a writer and community organizer working on issues of violence against women and race. This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series. 

Published in Top Stories
Thursday, 04 January 2018 09:18

Ethnic Women are Full Participants in Canada

By: Summer Fanous in Toronto

In 1916, women across the nation rejoiced as Manitoba became the first province to grant women the right to vote. Looking back, it's almost ludicrous to think that gender could determine one’s status within society. Fast forward 100 years, however, and women around the world are still at the forefront, advocating for much needed change. Silenced for far too long, women are passionately speaking out about inequalities and injustices everywhere they can, including in books. Telling Our Stories: Immigrant Women's Resilience is creating awareness about sexual abuse among immigrant and refugee women. Women’s voices are to be heard, and they are demanding equal opportunity. And the world is listening. Even Saudi Arabia, which previously served as the only country that still barred women from driving, will make a change in a ruling set for 2018 implementation. Canada, on the other hand, is a country that affords equal rights to men and women.

7.5 million people immigrated to Canada in 2016. And while specific motives may differ, the country’s stance on equality and the subsequent avenues of opportunity are a big reason such a diverse range of people can call it ‘home’. Based on recent findings, the Ministry of the Status of Women reports that 55% of all Canadian doctors and dentists are females. An optimistic sign of the progress that has been accomplished thus far. However, equal rights don’t always mean equal pay. In Ontario, for example, the average woman earns $33,600 annually, while a man earns $49,000. 

As if that’s not enough to bring spirits down, other hurdles still exist when it comes to leadership amongst women. The Canadian government, along with Skills for Change has been conducting periodic Gender Based Analysis’ since 1995 with the most recent one taking place in 2013. The findings identify the following 8 barriers: Language and Communication, Looking for Opportunity, Unemployment, Lack of Confidence, Cultural Differences, Working Survival Jobs, Finances and Refugee Status.    

New Canadian Media (NCM), along with Skills for Change and the Vanier Institute for the Family are partnering up on an exciting project available to members of the NCM Collective. Together with the Ontario multiculturalism program, NCM has been commissioned to produce a series of 20 original pieces of journalism that speak to this theme: Women as full participants in Ontario’s immigration story.

Female members of the NCM Collective have the opportunity to showcase different perspectives on a range of topics. With a focus on Ontario’s rich multi-culture, these individual pieces will provide a better understanding of the talent that the mainstream so often ignores. Even in a country that emphasizes equality, women are not always provided the same opportunities to express themselves as their male counterparts. 

Writers interested in participating are encouraged to join the NCM Collective for an opportunity. Additional details such as compensation and content guidelines will be communicated as pitches are received. 

Published in Commentary

by Tazeen Inam in Mississauga

A graphic novel that creates awareness about sexual abuse among immigrant and refugee women has upped its print order barely a month after its launch in Ontario. The overwhelming demand has come from far beyond just refugee and immigrant-settlement groups. 

"We have requests from outside of the province, from other parts of the country as well as internationally," says Krittika Ghosh, senior coordinator of women sexual violence at Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI).

This demand is a clear indication that there is a dire need to help such women who are new to the country due to the scarcity of their resources. Smaller friend circles coupled with language barriers and limited education result in suffering in seclusion. 

Statistics tell that one in three women in Canada encounters sexual abuse or violence in one way or another.

"They range from people asking for one copy for a library, to some agencies asking for 500 copies in each language. So it's really unique."

Breaking down barriers

Titled "Telling Our Stories: Immigrant Women's Resilience", the unique novel that is written by and for immigrant and refugee women looks to break down barriers that hinder the reporting of abuse. 

The project is a joint venture between the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) and Le Mouvement Ontarien des Femmes Immigrantes Francophones (MOFIF).

The novel, launched on March 2, illustrates four stories of newcomer women – victims of domestic abuse, workplace abuse, and date rape. The book helps create a narrative around this deeply sensitive topic and enables victims to empower themselves to shine a light on this often unreported crime. 

Unlike other story formats, the graphic novel was written with input gathered through workshops conducted with 40 immigrant or refugee women, who shared their stories and worked with illustrator Coco Guzman.

First-person accounts

"Each story is the outcome of a four-day workshop of newcomer or refugee women and many cases were survivors of sexual and intimate kind of violence," says Ghosh.

It helps people realize that there is no need to suffer in silence as help is available. 

It also challenges stereotypes of survivors and to show that they are resilient and capable of organizing to end violence themselves. 

Explaining the choice of format, Ghosh says, "We wanted it to be in a format that would be more available and accessible and something that people would want to read."

Growing demand

Professionals and groups beyond social workers, teachers, public libraries, immigrant and refugee welcome groups and the police are reaching out for the book.

The book is available free of cost and is not meant for sale.

The novel is available in 11 languages, including French and English.

OCASI and MOFIF had 7,000 copies in English, 3,000 in French and 1,000 in nine other languages including Arabic, Tamil, Chinese, Punjabi and Somali, in the first print run. The plan is to also have the stories available online.

OCASI website has an online form, where the book can be ordered. So far, it has received around 80 orders from different individuals and settlement agencies.

"They range from people asking for one copy for a library, to some agencies asking for 500 copies in each language. So it's really unique," according to Ghosh.

Fear of blame

The novel highlights that fear of blame, along with possibilities of racial, ethnic and religious discrimination never stopped these real-life characters from acting with courage and resilience. 

Intervention brings positive twists to these live stories. 

Kose's story revolves around deceit and marital rape accompanied by threats of deportation. Magali's story is based on workplace sexual abuse, whereas, Amal's story portrays student-teacher sexual harassment and Manuela's story is an illustration of date rape. 

In all of the stories there is a caring individual, whether it be a friend or relative, who intervenes with educational information. This portrays how people can counter violence against women by beginning conversations and taking action within their communities. 

Published in Books

by Dr. Gina Valle in Toronto

Children of immigrants learn to live in two worlds. As a first-generation Canadian, I learned to maintain and modify my Italian culture in order to make it valid and workable in Canadian society. There is some consolation in knowing that many children of immigrants share this feeling and practice.

As a woman raised in an immigrant home, I travel daily between the rural, southern Italian culture I acquired inside my home and the urban, mainstream Canadian culture I live outside. Each day, I build bridges of understanding, as I create a new culture. This new culture straddles the ‘old’ world in which I was raised and the ‘new’ world of contemporary Canadian society.  There is no doubt that the contrast between these diverse realities has allowed me to live a more full life.

My parents were post-war immigrants to Canada from Calabria. My father, Domenico Valle, arrived at Pier 21, in Halifax, in 1957.  My mother, Giuseppa Ziccarelli, came in 1960.  My parents had been neighbours in their hometown of Lago, Cosenza. My father was the eldest of his family, and shortly after his father died, he went to France, Germany and eventually Canada in search of steady work.

While in Toronto, my father held down three jobs and lived with his cousins, Luca and Sofia Perri, until he decided it was time to get married. He wrote his neighbour in Lago, Antonio Ziccarelli, and asked for his eldest daughter’s hand.  A few months later, in the spring of 1960, my mother boarded a ship in Napoli, bound for Canada. (A wedding picture at left)

Two years after her arrival, I was born. Three years later, my brother Antonio Nicola was born. In the early years, my father made donuts, washed cars, and sold vacuum cleaners. My mother made clothes for dolls and took care of boarders, to help support her family. As my parents worked around the clock, my grandmother, Luigina Valle, cared for us in our home. Nonna had come to Canada, to live with her eldest son, shortly before my baptism.

Although my father’s love of building new homes was where his real interest lay, he went on to start a business as an insurance broker, with my uncle Domenico Groe. They worked hard at this business, until they finally retired and closed their doors in 2002.

Richness of two worlds

I attended public schools, and in keeping with my parents’ strong work ethic, I began working as an 11-year old by delivering newspapers, babysitting and stocking shelves at the local drugstore.  From time to time, I would adopt a ‘Hollywood’ version of life, but otherwise, I instinctively knew that everything in life would require hard work.

Language and culture shape me as they weave their way through my life as a daughter, mother, wife, granddaughter, friend, and professional. Creating a new culture, one that straddles the old world that my parents understand, and the new world of contemporary society, has always been a very complex process for me. As a child of immigrants, I often tried to reconcile the irreconcilable — home and school — my private and public worlds.  Many children of immigrants feel that they have to choose between family and school, and this inevitably became a choice between belonging to an ethnocultural  community, or succeeding as an individual. This reality caused part of the alienation I have known as a first-generation Canadian. Having said that, however, it also has allowed me to experience the richness of living in two worlds.

Over time, as I learned to accommodate Canadian culture, I quietly abandoned my Italian culture. I believe that this is the reality of many first-generation Canadians, as we struggle to merge two cultures. Immigrants in a new homeland often know only one way of viewing the world. Children of immigrants always know two. Very subtle negotiations became part of my daily decision-making, as both cultures competed for my allegiance. As a teen, I told half-truths and half-lies to get by, like when I wanted to attend the school dance, go to a sleepover, date a boy, wear make-up or travel outside of Toronto. (Picture — family Christmas circa 1970)

The tensions between two cultural systems remain inside me to this day.

Embracing motherhood

It is this conflict that fuelled my professional work, as I continue to search for ways in which bicultural, multilingual children in our classrooms can accept and wholeheartedly believe in their contribution to education and ultimately our society. Ever since I was a child, I made every attempt to be recognized as an impeccable member of Canadian society, which inevitably consisted of closing off my private life when I closed the door behind me and went to school. I became resourceful, as I adjusted my behaviour to respond to the expectations of Canadian culture.

I had to become creative to cope with realities like why there was no summer camp, but rather my holidays consisted of hanging out with Nonna on the front porch. When classmates departed for the cottage, my excursions were limited to the park down the street. I attended university in Toronto rather than moving out and living in residence.  Often, I try to make sense of the choices my parents have made, and the lives they have led — dislocated from the old world, alienated in the new. In the end, however, living in two cultures has made me a more flexible, open-minded and resourceful person.

As a woman raised in a traditional culture, I was only expected to wed and embrace motherhood. The added accomplishment of higher education and a profession were niceties. I was often caught between my first culture’s expectations and my own needs and aspirations as a woman.  I have had to work twice as hard as the men in my culture, only to receive half the recognition.

In the same year I was accepted to do my doctoral work, I also became a wife. Guess which garnered more celebration? As such, I have lived in a sea of crushing pressure to conform and limit my expectations to that of wife and mother. In other words, I was expected to accommodate marriage and motherhood. Although deeply connected to my culture in many ways, I quietly chose to rebel against the same culture that can devalue our contribution as women. I opted to walk away from the ‘script’ that others had written for me. It seemed, at times, that few of my accomplishments in life were worthy of discussion around the kitchen table.

According to my southern Italian culture, success as a ‘real’ woman is measured by how well I tend to the hearth, and not in academic terms. In the home, I clear away the table and make coffee for my uncles. Outside of the home, I challenge people’s biases and teach immigrant women about their rights. At times, the dissonance between the competing images of womanhood is difficult to shoulder. There is no doubt that many young girls from traditional cultures are attempting to resolve the same dilemma. They need to face their dragons one by one, and with time their courage will surface.  Having grown up feeling that few choices were available to me, outside of a traditional female lifestyle, my hope in my professional work is to create a space for young women to consider they have more choices.

Persevering with French

In 1994, I married David Chemla (see picture below) and moved to Montreal where my husband articled and then worked as a lawyer at Stikeman Elliott. We lived there for several years. Prior to moving to Quebec, I had made few attempts to understand the complexities of that province. I quietly settled into my life in Montreal, and went about my business, naturally assuming that Montreal was like everywhere else in North America.  I decided that my ‘practical’ commitment to the Canadian debate about Quebec would be to speak French as often as my energy and goodwill would permit. I persevered to gain proficiency in the French language. Over the years, my studies in France, work projects in Quebec, and French-speaking friends and family members all brought me closer to the language.

I arrived in Montreal shortly after the Meech Lake Accord and just before the 1995 Referendum. As a newcomer to the province, how could I possibly grasp the complexity of the cultural and linguistic debates simmering in the province?  Gradually, my social identity began to shift.  I was now categorized as an Allophone and not an Anglophone, even though I communicate most efficiently in English. For the first time ever, my native origin was questioned by strangers.  “I hear a tinge of an accent,” they would say, trying to determine where I was from.

I worked, shopped, entertained, assessed arguments and sent e-mails in French and English. I read, socialized, attended meetings, negotiated car repairs, accessed services, took courses and returned phone messages in French and English.  Everything about my life in Montreal was becoming increasingly bilingual.  In essence, what is most unique about the city is its inherent bilingual nature.

Our first son, Gabriel was born on a blistery cold January day. It seemed that it would take forever before I would love being a mother. But as routine set in and our son smiled and made us laugh, I fell in love with him and with my new role. My husband David’s work commitments, as legal counsel for a multinational engineering firm, took him to far off places. This meant that I was often alone with a newborn. Loneliness set in and I longed for the days of family gatherings around the kitchen table.

I asked David if he could request a transfer to Toronto. He said he would make the request, but he was concerned that our children would not be raised in a French-speaking environment. As a Francophone Canadian, whose family was from France and Tunisia, this was very important.  I gave him my word. If we moved to Ontario, I would speak to Gabriel, and then also Alexandre, only in French. I continue this to the present day. Add to that the fact that they attended French schools – their books, television and family chit-chat was in French – and somehow in a sea of English dominance, David and I were able to raise two bilingual Francophone children.

Voice for the community

At some point, their French surpassed mine and it was time to focus on Italian. Gabriel and Alexandre always spoke Italian with my parents. They also attended summer camps, sing-along classes, read comics and watched soccer games in Italian. They developed a strong sense of being Italian, which meant spending time with family, helping the grandparents in the garden or in the kitchen and connecting with their cousins in Italy.

After the defence of my doctoral thesis, which was at the same time that I was carrying our second child Alexandre, my precious Nonna fell ill and it was time to complete the circle of care that she had started when she arrived in time for my baptism in 1963. With two children in diapers, my Nonna bedridden due to a stroke, my husband travelling more than ever since his portfolio had expanded in Ontario, and looking for a decent home in an exaggerated market, my professional goals needed to be put on hold.

They were for a while, until we settled into a routine, in our own home.  With the kids in school, given that my doctoral work had focused on Teacher Education and Multicultural Studies, I turned my efforts to working in the field of diversity. I launched Diversity Matters Inc. and went on to publish several books, curate a photo exhibit that has travelled to Scandinavia, Asia and the Middle East, produce and direct a multi-faith documentary, develop curriculum resources and deliver workshops.

Life seemed manageable, and as decent as it should be, given the storyline we are fed in our noisy world, until the sudden illness of my father. At the age of 74, he was diagnosed with stage four cancer. Dad was the eldest in his family, the caregiver, nurturer, relentless worker who loved his home-made salami, trips to Florida, bocce games, lunch at the Mandarin, and above all else, his family. He died within a matter of weeks, and everything I knew to be true and real, shattered.  I grieved longingly for the person who had been such an inspiration in my life, and an exceptional role model for my sons. He left us too soon. (See picture of  Domenico and Giuseppa Valle with their grandchildren, in 2004.)

So, instead of having quiet dinners at home or buying a new rug that matches the living room furniture, I participate in a host of Italian Canadian initiatives, from documenting the stories of Italian immigrant women for the Multicultural History Society of Ontario, to providing feedback on the Italian Canadians as Enemy Aliens national project, or being a board member of AMICI Museum, the Association of Italian Canadian Writers, Italian Heritage Month and most recently Villa Charities. I am a voice for our community as OMNI Television restructures its programming for ethnocultural communities.

I help with homework, prepare dinner, carpool to soccer practice and go to a meeting in our Italian Canadian community (or to Lifeline Syria, Multifaith Toronto, or the Canadian Race Relations Foundation). I do this for my parents, and I do this for my children. I do this for Domenico and Giuseppa Valle, as it is my small way of honouring my parents’ love and commitment to us and to this country. And I do this for my sons Gabriel and Alexandre, as it is my way of teaching them about the past, and giving them a strong sense of belonging to a place we all call home.

 Gina Valle, Ph.D., is a diversity trainer, speaker, author and the founder of Diversity Matters, where she challenges Canadians to think outside the black box when it comes to pluralism within our borders and beyond. This first-person account first appeared in Transformations Canada

Published in Arts & Culture

A bill to make Canada’s national anthem more gender neutral recently passed in the House of Commons. Bill C-210, which will change the second line of the national anthem from “true patriot love, in all thy sons command” to “true patriot love, in all of us command,” still requires approval of the Senate before it […]

Indo-Canadian Voice

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Published in National

by Tazeen Inam in Mississauga

Canadian authors of faith-based fiction say seeking answers in religion to the injustices of their pasts enhances their creativity and inspires their literary work.

A group of authors explained how their spiritual backgrounds influence the creation and shape of their stories during a discussion titled “Faith and Fiction” at the recent Festival of Literary Diversity held in Brampton, Ont.

Confronting injustice

Growing up, panellist Zarqa Nawaz says she questioned the divider that separates women from men at the mosque.

“It seemed to me, as a child, very fundamentally unfair,” says Nawaz, creator of the CBC series Little Mosque on the Prairie.

She says that while faith is an important part of her life, gender inequality caused a disruption for her until she created the documentary Me in the Mosque.

“We had such progressive views centuries ago when it came to not just women, but the third sex.”

During her research, she discovered that in Islamic history, there was a section of the mosque for men, a section for women, and a third section for people that define as a third sex.

“We had such progressive views centuries ago when it came to not just women, but the third sex,” she says.

Nawaz grew up reading memoirs and watching documentaries on feminist struggles of different faiths and cultures. She says her understanding of prejudice against women is not limited to any faith, but is in fact a “universal theme.”

“Getting away from faith doesn’t mean that you get away from prejudice,” she says.

She describes an incident in which a Hijab-wearing Muslim girl was barred from going to school in France, where prominent religious symbols are banned in grade schools. 

“How is it different from the Taliban?” Nawaz asks.

She says such injustices provoke her to fight back by raising awareness through her work.

For Ayelet Tsabari, fiction is a place to question the existence of God.

Tsabari grew up in Israel and says believing in God in the Jewish religion was something that she never questioned until her father, who she describes as a pious man, passed away when she was nine years old.

She returned to Hinduism in search of role models for her writing, which she lacked in her own life as a child.

She developed a belief that when a person dies, so does God and that is why he was not there to save her father.

“That was something that sort of made sense to me as a child,” says Tsabari.

She describes this loss as a crisis of faith, which has inspired her writing. Tsabari’s book The Best Place on Earth, won the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.

“My characters are facing either crises of faith or there is a clash within family over the issues of faith,” she says about the book.

Finding role models

Vivek Shraya says while she does not follow Hinduism anymore, Hindu mythology from a feminist lens has inspired her work. She returned to Hinduism in search of role models for her writing, which she lacked in her own life as a child.

As a queer artist and writer, she says she aims to counter genderphobia, or fear of gender-nonconforming individuals, in her work. She puts particular emphasis on the God Krishna and says she believes that she has an intimate connection with this role model.

Shraya adds that male Gods who have long hair, wear jewellery, and are friends with girls help her relate to the genderphobia she experienced in school.

“It seems to be a common theme throughout my work, because its one of the first places where I felt that I [could] see myself,” explains Shraya.

Shraya’s debut novel, She of the Mountains, has two narratives – one is a contemporary bi-sexual love story, and the other is about re-imagining Hindu mythology and its illustrations.

“The story keepers reach back and reach forward and weave together those words that provided a blanket for our community . . .”

Reclaiming history

Panellist Cherie Dimaline is a member of the Georgian Bay Métis community in Ontario. Her books Red Rooms, The Girl Who Grew A Galaxy and A Gentle Habit reflect on indigenous people’s connections with the land. 

“That’s what we base our understanding of spirituality on,” she says.

Dimaline says she learned to practise a version of the Roman Catholic faith infused with First Nations beliefs – what she describes as a “mixing and melting of understandings.”   

“It was a very mixed, but also very structured upbringing,” she says.

Along with the influence of the church, Dimaline says she was also privileged to grow up with her grandmother who was the story keeper of the community.

When young Dimaline was selected to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps, the responsibility of preserving her community’s memories – seven generations back and seven generations to the future – fell on her shoulders.

“The story keepers reach back and reach forward and weave together those words that provided a blanket for our community of safety and understanding of our spirituality,” she explains. “The base of the understandings and world views that we have come from that faith.”

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to

Published in Books

by Danica Samuel in Toronto 

A discussion on democratic transitions highlighted the need to include the role of women when examining how world leaders have created democratic societies around the world. 

The discussion took place at the launch of Democratic Transitions: Conversations with World Leaders, hosted on March 31 by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) at the University Club of Toronto. 

“The beauty of the book is that from nine case studies of nine countries, it addresses issues that should be looked at for future generations that get involved in these important democratic processes and transitions that take place all over the world at various times,” said IDRC President Jean Lebel. 

Between January 2012 and June 2013, co-editors Sergio Bitar and Abraham Lowenthal interviewed 13 world leaders on the processes of establishing democratic political systems during times of political upheaval and change. Former President of the Philippines, Fidel V. Ramos, former Prime Minister of Spain, Felipe González, and F.W. de Klerk, the last politician to serve as state president of South Africa during the apartheid era, were among those interviewed. 

“It’s the only book on transitions that have succeeded in four continents,” explained Bitar. “[These transitions] are described not by an academician or by a journalist, but by the leaders and presidents themselves.”  

Each chapter identifies the process and research that was conducted to address topics such as establishing trust, economic management and social mobilization. 

Single chapter on role of women

“The fact that women are not incorporated anywhere in the world is problematic. We are still second-class citizens.”

A popular topic of discussion among audience members at the book launch was the role of women in democratic transitioning. 

In the chapter “Women Activists in Democratic Transitions,” Georgina Waylen, professor of politics at the University of Manchester, examines how women supported and enhanced political participation by different social groups and promoted policies that strengthened women’s rights and gender equality. 

“Many women who actively sought to ensure positive gender outcomes during transitions were active in social movements, the bureaucracy and academia – not just in political parties or in the inner circles of men who became democratic presidents when elections were held,” writes Waylen. 

Professor Ana Isla of Brock University said she was confused as to why there was a separate researcher responsible for examining the role of women. 

“Why weren’t these world leaders and representatives able to answer questions when it comes to women?” asked Isla during the question-and-answer period. 

“Every aspect of society is intersected by women’s issues,” she continued. “The fact that women are not incorporated anywhere in the world is problematic. We are still second-class citizens.” 

Isla said there is already a plethora of woman making an impact.  She mentioned the uprising of women organizations and social movements in Latin America as recent examples.

“It’s the power of women that must change politics and change men.”

“All these women initiated the transition from dictatorship to democracy,” she said. However, they are the ones who are missing in this book because instead of looking at the women or the social movements, the focus is on the [men in power] who were able to change their minds.” 

Leaders ignore role of women

The book’s introduction notes, “Unfortunately, there are no surviving women leaders of these transitions, and few of our interviewees provided much insight about women’s participation in them.”

Bitar confirmed that male leaders are very reluctant to have a conversation about women’s contributions to democratic transitions. 

“Normally, the response is, ‘These women are coming again with the same story, and we have to listen,’” Bitar said, imitating the male leaders interviewed. 

He went on to explain that the male leaders usually assume the women think they are not relevant to the process of improving democracy, or that if they become powerful, they will not allow men to act or decide on policies. 

“It’s the power of women that must change politics and change men,” said Bitar. “It takes lots of time, but we have realized that better democracies exist when there are more women participants in policies and law-making.” 

Democracy a tool, not a solution

“Democracy is only a tool … It doesn’t solve everything.”

Bitar said he and Lowenthal learned that every leader possessed the courage to take risks during times when their families, friends and colleagues were being killed or in danger. 

“All of them had to combat fear – a very important element in the hands of any dictator,” he said. “Fighting against fear was something we found very prevalent.” 

Researchers and influencers like Lebel and Bitar, who is also president of Chile’s Foundation for Democracy, said they know that democracy isn’t the solution to problems such as gender inequality, poverty, and environmental destruction. 

“If we all took on democracy, someone naïve will say the world will be much better,” said Lebel. 

“Democracy is only a tool … it doesn’t solve everything, but it gives the opportunity to have people speaking freely, institutions that are strong and take care of problems, avoid inequity, and transform social problems.”

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to


Published in Books

PV Staff.
Sierra Leone's president Ernest Bai Koroma (pictured) on Tuesday spoke on a number of issues affecting women in the country.
The president, who was speaking at an even marking International Women's day dwelled at length on the issue of gender parity, the controversial safe abortion bill, pregnant school girls and related topics.
A huge number of Sierra Leone's women and girls cannot read and write and the educated ones face many challenges in both traditional (...)

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Published in Africa

by Soofia Mahmood in Toronto 

Women empowerment is often defined as the ability to participate in economic life across all sectors. But when South Asian female immigrants in Canada are asked to define empowerment in the context of their own lives, the responses clearly highlight social factors as being most relevant to their feeling of emancipation. 

Statistically speaking, immigrant women are more likely to have completed university than women born in Canada, but still earn less. In addition, owing to the already existing gender gap, they also earn less than male immigrants

Despite these economic facts, many South Asian immigrant women consider themselves much more socially empowered in Canada compared to their home countries. 

Having the authority to make simple choices, being able to access public spaces without fear and having the freedom to wear what they want to without being judged are some definitions of empowerment laid out by Pakistani and Indian women.

Freedom from social pressure

“It’s funny how my parents are so much more relaxed about what I wear or where I go when I am in Canada’, says Swati, a 26-year old Indian woman living on her own in Toronto.

Whether it's something as simple as sporting a tattoo or wearing western clothes without being judged, Swati finds this small aspect of her autonomy refreshing.  

Many South Asian immigrant women consider themselves much more socially empowered in Canada.

Farah, a Muslim Pakistani woman in Canada married to a non-Pakistani, emphasizes the absence of social pressure that gives women like her the feeling of freedom. She couldn’t have imagined her family coming to terms with her choice of partner in her home country.  

“It is heartwarming to see that our parents’ values are adjusting to this modern society. The absence of social judgment enables them to accept women empowerment as a viable concept,” she explains.

Freedom from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation

The social and legal acceptance of alternate sexuality in Canada is another factor that is linked to empowerment of queer women hailing from conservative countries. 

Noor, a lesbian artist from Pakistan, moved to Canada after a long, arduous journey of self-acceptance. 

“The way I walk has changed. I don’t feel guilty about being who I am.”

“I would have been forcefully married in Pakistan and my sexuality would have been a serious security threat,” she tells New Canadian Media. “Here, even though I still have to hide my truth from my family, I feel more relaxed.” 

When asked how this has changed her in her everyday life, she replies with a smile, “The way I walk has changed. I don’t feel guilty about being who I am.”

Safe access to public spaces

These cases notwithstanding, there are many South Asian women who lead independent lives in their home countries, with opportunities to experience freedom within their social circles. 

Their families and friends were open-minded, and they had access to resources that made it possible for them to be independent. 

Natasha Qureshi is one such woman from Pakistan who says she has never let her gender dictate her life, even in her home country. 

Despite that, she mentions that being able to walk on the streets alone without feeling threatened or harassed is something she truly values in Canada. “Now when I go back to Pakistan, I miss being able to walk alone on the street without worrying about safety”, she says.

"When I go back to Pakistan, I miss being able to walk alone on the street."

In Pakistan, even in urban metros where women drive and work freely, their solitary access to public spaces like parks or street restaurants is limited by safety and rules, said or unsaid.

Talking about the discomfort women experience in public spaces, especially if they do not conform to the social norms of appropriate appearances, Noor says, “Basic misogyny happens in everyday life in conservative countries. As a woman, you are often made to feel like you are just a face in a window looking out.”

Defining one’s own social boundaries

Social freedom is a relative concept and is dependent not only on geography, but also the community you choose to interact with and the mindset you adopt. 

Many immigrant women, although integrated into the Canadian society, now choose to define their own social limitations.  

Faiza Feroze, a Pakistani mother of two living in Ottawa, says, “The concept of women empowerment should not be so liberal and should be considered in the light of religious boundaries.”

Although she enjoys the absence of daily social pressures about how a woman ‘should’ behave, she chooses to mostly interact within her community and respects the boundaries she considers religious and sacred. 

“The fact that you can openly follow your own religious boundaries in a Western country, without judgment, makes me very happy. To me that is social freedom,” she says. 

*Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

This is the first of three parts for our series on changing family dynamics and what it means for women immigrants in Canada. If you are an immigrant who has experienced significant social change in your life after arriving in Canada, please contact

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to

Published in Arts & Culture

by Amanda Connolly in Ottawa

On International Women’s Day, equal rights experts say that cabinet gender equality, a prime minister who calls himself a feminist and social media campaigns such as #HeForShe help in the fight for women’s rights in Canada and internationally, but that there is still a long way to go toward policy parity that translates into real progress.

In interviews with iPolitics, the heads of the United Nations Population Fund and Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights say that while there’s greater awareness around issues of gender inequality than in the past, that still needs to translate into concrete action to improve the lives of women in Canada and abroad on issues like access to education, career opportunities and sexual and reproductive rights.

“It’s not just about wearing a badge and saying ‘He For She,'” said Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) in reference to the viral social media movement spearheaded by UN Women and actress Emma Watson over the past two years.”We have to do things — what are we doing at home and in the workplace environment to make sure that women are treated equally? We need to keep pushing.”

Time to stop 'skirting around' the issue

Since the election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his gender-balanced federal cabinet, there’s been renewed attention domestically on the issues of gender equality and women’s representation in politics.

“We can talk about gender equality, but until we actually start doing things and confronting things, we aren’t going to get there.”

Cabinet ministers including Environment Minister Catherine McKenna have sparked discussions over work-life balance and the challenges faced, particularly by women, by, for instance, late votes in the House. Former NDP MP Sania Hassainia, prompted debate on how to make public and work spaces more family-friendly when she brought her baby into the House of Commons during a vote in 2014.

It’s these kinds of discussions that are vital to putting the issue of gender equality on the public radar, Osotimehin says, so that leaders prioritize “creating child-friendly spaces around the world and making sure that women don’t lose their career growth.”

“We have skirted around it for too long,” he said. “We can talk about gender equality, but until we actually start doing things and confronting things, we aren’t going to get there.”

With a prime minister who calls himself a feminist, Canada is better placed than it’s been in years to lead initiatives on gender equality not just at home but abroad, says the executive director of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights.

Sandeep Prasad says Monday’s announcement for greater funding for sexual health education and family planning is an indication that the government isn’t going to shy away from supporting gender equality globally, and the language used in the announcement of $81.6 million in funding for the UNFPA is a welcome change from how the past government approached women’s sexual and reproductive health.

“This is the first time I can recall of the government referring to sexual and reproductive rights in full."

“This is the first time I can recall of the government referring to sexual and reproductive rights in full and indicating its support for those issues,” Prasad said. “We’re waiting for more steps forward, but we’re taking note of this one and we’re going to enjoy it.”

While the former Conservative government’s Muskoka Initiative on Maternal and Newborn Health was a strong step in helping save the lives of mothers and children, Prasad says it didn’t pay equal attention to women who are not or do not want to become mothers.

“We saw a lot of [focusing on] women as childbearers and the initiative also prioritized the lives of mothers over other women,” he said. “Agency and autonomy as central principles of sexual and reproductive rights are critical.”

Canada poised to be leader around sexual rights

While International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said Monday the government is having discussions around other initiatives specifically involving abortion, there was no timeline set for when or how the government plans to act on its support for the topic abroad.

Improving access to RU-486 — otherwise known as the abortion pill — would be a significant step towards showing their commitment to women’s reproductive rights.

Prasad said his organization is hopeful the government will commit to advancing abortion rights as part of its support for sexual and reproductive rights over the long term, but also pointed to things they can do at home in the short term.

In particular, improving access to RU-486 — otherwise known as the abortion pill — would be a significant step towards showing their commitment to women’s reproductive rights, he said.

Health Canada approved the combination of drugs known commercially as Mifegymiso — which is really two pills of Mifepristone and Misoprostol — in June 2015 but imposed several restrictions on how it can be used.

Although the World Health Organization approves the drug combination for pregnancies up to nine weeks, Health Canada set the limit for use in Canada at seven weeks.

As well, doctors seeking to prescribe the drug must undergo specialized training to do so and there must be a registry kept of the doctors prescribing and pharmacists dispensing it.

Prasad says allowing Mifegymiso to be used up to ninth week of pregnancy would bring Canada in line with other allies and mark an important step in the government’s willingness to ensure access to abortion services in Canada over the coming year as it continues to brand itself as a government bringing Canada back as a leader in the international community.

“I’m hoping that we will be moving towards a Canada that reasserts its place on the global stage and in Canada on the issues of women’s rights and sexual and reproductive rights as well, and we can see more evidence-based discussion on these movements and what Canada does at home and abroad,” he said. 

“There’s ample scope for greater political leadership for Canada in advancing sexual and reproductive rights.”

Republished in partnership with

Published in Politics
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